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Field school teaches young Indigenous Indonesians how to care for their forests

  • The Marena Indigenous group on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi are among a handful of communities who have obtained title to their ancestral forest following a landmark 2013 ruling by the nation’s Constitutional Court.
  • For years the forest was managed by outside companies, but now Indigenous advocacy groups are training the community’s youths about the traditional ways of sustainably exploiting the forest and its resources.
  • Organizers say the main goal of this field school program is to train the community’s young generation to be able to understand the forest and its potential.
  • The community has used its power to terminate a contract with a sap production company that was originally brought in by the central government, striking a new deal with the company on more favorable terms.

PEKALOBEAN, Indonesia — Haeriah is a young homemaker and a member of the Marena Indigenous community on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Although she’s lived all her life near her community’s ancestral forest, Haeriah, like many others around her age, didn’t learn about the forest growing up because for several generations her community didn’t control it.

That began to change in 2013, when Indonesia’s Constitutional Court amended a 1999 forestry law that had classified customary forests as state-owned, laying the groundwork for the return of those forests back to Indigenous communities who had historically managed them. It took several more years of petitioning the government, but in 2017, the Marena were one of nine Indigenous communities that had their management rights to their customary forest restored.

The Marena have lived in and around the forest for countless generations, learning how to harvest its resources and cultivate agricultural products. Now, Haeriah and other members of her generation are learning about her people’s traditional knowledge of the forest through a field school program that seeks to make up for the gaps caused by all those lost years.

Customary forests are now managed independently by the community, by a group of 20 people selected from the population living around the forest. Image by Wahyu Chandra/Mongabay Indonesia.

Haeriah said the field school taught her about the reason behind many of her community’s customs and rituals. “From the field school, I could learn about our traditional ways. For example, when we are planting shallots [in the forest], there are certain things that must be considered and areas that are off-limits. I now understand all that,” she told Mongabay.

The field school program was held in November by the Law and Community Association (HuMa), an NGO, in collaboration with the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN). It took place in Pekalobean village, located in Enrekang district in South Sulawesi province. Pekalobean is one of five villages that make up the Marena community.

Suardi, a farmer who also participated in the field school, said he previously knew little about the customary forest or the government returning control of it.

“I understand that now, with the official recognition of our customary forest, we can manage it ourselves without fear of being chased off by the police, as long as we manage it responsibly,” Suardi said.

The field school participants learn to write. The field school participants’ learning outcomes are displayed on their respective social media. Photo: Wahyu Chandra/Mongabay Indonesia.

The field school was led by Solihin, an activist with AMAN, an advocacy group that represents some 15 million Indigenous people across Indonesia. According to Solihin, the main goal of the field school program is to train the community’s young generation to be able to understand the forest and its potential.

“We train them to be able to map the potential of the biodiversity in customary forest biodiversity and to do social and spatial data collection. They are also expected to be able to identify customary laws related to customary forests, and to get other young people involved in managing their customary areas,” Solhin said, adding that HuMa and AMAN have conducted a number of similar field school programs for other Indigenous communities.

Now that the local community has control of their forest again, they have already taken steps to prioritize sustainability.

Piter Kadang is one of the traditional leaders of the Marena, holding the title sianene, which translates to “elder one.” Piter said the community had decided to allow PT Adi Mitra, a company that had a mandate from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to commercially extract sap from the customary forest’s pine trees, to restart its operations after the management rights to the forest were returned to the Marena.

The Marena Customary Forest area in Pekalobean Village is dominated by pine trees. Now the management of the area is given to the Marena customary community through the Customary Forest scheme. Image by Wahyu Chandra/Mongabay Indonesia.

“We decided to try to do a one-year contract and if it was good, we could continue. It was not even a year yet but we had already become worried about the condition of the forest because of some problematic tapping techniques they are using that are not in accordance with what is recommended by forestry experts,” Piter said.

According to Piter, the company had been tapping the trees deeper than the recommended 3 centimeters (just over an inch), causing some to die and become easily uprooted by strong winds and fall over, felling other productive trees.

“We finally decided to terminate the contract first in order to restore the forest. Although this partnership generated money that could be used for by the community, we were worried that the forest would become tapped out in the future.” Piter said they would continue to develop sustainable agriculture within the customary forest by planting coffee, avocado, and other crops in between the trees.

Banner image: Coffee is one of the plantation commodities developed in the Marena customary forest area. Other plants are avocado, nutmeg and eucalyptus. Image by Wahyu Chandra/Mongabay Indonesia.

This article was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here on our Indonesian site on Nov. 28, 2021.

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